'Polar': Film Review

Breaks more than the ice.

Mads Mikkelsen cuts a bloody path through an army of assassins in Jonas Akerlund's gleefully outrageous graphic novel adaptation.

Any movie that begins with a sequence centered on Johnny Knoxville's erect penis can only go up (or down, as the case may be) from there. In the case of director Jonas Akerlund and screenwriter Jayson Rothwell's adaptation of the graphic novel Polar: Came From the Cold by Victor Santos, the narrative and emotional through-lines change by the millisecond. This is whiplash-inducing ADD cinema, and shamelessly proud of it (the editor's name is Doobie White, for god's sake!), though there is a grounding center in the form of Mads Mikkelsen as near-retirement-age assassin Duncan Vizla, aka The Black Kaiser.

For years, Duncan has been a top employee at Damocles, a shadowy cabal of killers run by doughy-faced psycho Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas). Duncan's scars are plentiful and even if he's still very good at his job, retirement is beckoning. Upon joining this butcher's guild, each assassin signs a contract complete with IRA or the equivalent. Duncan's post-service take-home is topping out at $8 million, so it seems like a good time to live that quiet cabin life he's been dreaming about. The problem is that Mr. Blut has been pulling a fast one. Also in his workers' contracts is a clause that states if an assassin dies pre-retirement, all their money goes to Damocles. Once a hitman calls it a day, the last hit is on him.

Surely nothing could go wrong setting Mads Mikkelsen in your gunsights? Yeah, right. The steely predator's stare and wolfish charisma that made him such a perfect cannibal psychiatrist on the TV series Hannibal is very well utilized here. Duncan is like the solemn strongman at an unhinged carnival, a virile moper with some apparently unresolved guilt (as suggested by several quick-cut flashbacks) over a job gone wrong. His remorse in no way mitigates his stealthy, stone-cold instincts. Duncan brings the same level of concentration to picking the right stove-top mac-and-cheese as he does to sneaking around naked in a snowstorm to get the upper hand on his adversaries. It's all pretty glorious to behold.

Akerlund punkishly shifts tones and styles scene by scene (one very memorable decapitation is like R-rated Looney Tunes), and the rest of the performers follow suit. Duncan's anxious neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens) seems to be inhabiting her own earnest indie drama about death, mourning and rebirth. (There's a rather jarring reason for that, a grasp for seriousness that doesn't entirely land in this context.) Elsewhere, Richard Dreyfuss cameos as a portly former killer reduced to drinking his life away in a karaoke bar; there's more genuine pathos in the actor's brief appearance here than in the entirety of his other recent Netflix production, the execrable dramedy The Last Laugh. Blut and his corps, meanwhile, are like a revolving band of demented clowns popping out of a mini-car, weapons and one-liners at the ready. Katheryn Winnick's slinky go-between Vivian ("Speak," she purrs whenever answering the phone) and Fei Ren's merciless Hilde, who's like a piece of anime fan art come to life, are standouts. 

Nothing, of course, can beat the sight of Mikkelsen, whether he's instructing a class of agog schoolchildren on the finer points of disembowelment, or hung up like a heretic and graphically tortured by Blut, yammering on about the extended agonies of Scottish knight William Wallace (to drive the point home, this cut-rate inquisitor blasts bagpipe music). Visions of Mel Gibson's Wallace epic Braveheart, specifically its entrails-eviscerating finale, might come to mind as Blut cuts and jabs at Duncan's flesh with pliers, knives and other sharp objects. But in contrast to Gibson, there's not an ounce of egomania in Mikkelsen's often naked display of sinew and suffering. He offers himself up fully and freely, never demanding any viewer's ardor, and that's a large part of what makes him such an enticing screen presence.

Polar is pure trash, but the generousness — and, in the final stretch, the poignancy — with which Mikkelsen approaches even the most lurid of the film's conceits at least pushes it toward the top of the garbage heap.

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: Constantin Film, Dark Horse Entertainment

Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Vanessa Hudgens, Katheryn Winnick, Fei Ren, Ruby O. Fee, Matt Lucas, Robert Maillet, Anthony Grant, Josh Cruddas, Johnny Knoxville, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Jonas Akerlund
Screenwriter: Jayson Rothwell

Producers: Jeremy Bolt, Hartley Gorenstein, Robert Kulzer
Executive producers: Keith Goldberg, Mads Mikkelsen, Martin Moszkowicz, Mike RichardsonMusic: Deadmau5
Director of photography: Par M. Ekberg
Editor: Doobie White

118 minutes